Folklife Center eyes Balkan immigrants

MIDDLEBURY — During the 1990s, Vermont saw an influx of refugees resettled from countries on the Balkan region of southeastern Europe — specifically Bosnia, Serbia and Albania. Those refugees, many of whom are now firmly established in the state, continue to observe traditions and memories from their home countries.
The Vermont Folklife Center hopes to share its collection of traditions and stories of Vermonters from the Balkans with a new website, funded by a $5,000 grant that it recently received from the Vermont Humanities Council.
Folklife Center Executive Director Brent Björkman said the project, which some of the center’s employees and interns are already working on, would serve as an educational tool for teachers talking about multiculturalism in Vermont. In part, it will serve as a more modern spin on the organization’s publication “Many Cultures, One People,” a guide for Vermont teachers created in 1992 before the large influx of Balkan refugees came to Vermont.
The new website, which will likely launch in early fall, will bring a multimedia aspect to teaching about multiculturalism — it will feature text and photographs, but also audio and video footage of immigrants telling their stories. Björkman said the project will also include short video pieces on Bosnian traditional dancing and the culinary traditions of different Balkan regions.
The website will be designed in conjunction with the Vermont Humanities Council’s “Vermont Reads 2010” program, which each year selects one book for reading and discussion in more than 60 towns statewide.
This year, the  book is “The Day of the Pelican,” by renowned children’s book author and Barre resident Katherine Paterson. The protagonist in the book is a Bosnian refuge who comes to Vermont.
“The project is a good way to link people into reading, to get them to think more about their own changing communities,” said Björkman.
Though connected to the Vermont Reads program, Björkman  hopes the website will be a resource with broader appeal as a starting point for discussion in classrooms across the state, both about Balkan cultures and about multiculturalism and diversity in general. In the future, he said, the project may extend further, allowing the Folklife Center to share stories of immigrants from African nations, from Cambodia and Vietnam, and from the many other nations represented in Vermont as educational material for schools and other organizations.
“I think (the website) should raise a lot of thoughts about what it means to be here now, by the individual ethnic groups that are represented here,” said Björkman. “(We hope) it will lead to talk in general about any kind of different group that’s in their school.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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